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Economic Essay Structure

It’s important to use your time efficiently on economics exams. In the new (2013) syllabus, you only get 45 minutes per essay. And that’s not much time to do everything you need to do. It’s easy to waste time (i.e with introductions or descriptive writing) that earn you no marks at all. If you use this structure you’ll be sure to earn all of the possible marks for each of your IB Economics essays.

Some students will be able to write more than others, because they write more quickly. This structure was written with an average-writing-speed student in mind.

Part A (18 minutes)

Part A1: Definition and real life example

Definition: Define a key word in the question

Definition: Define either another key word in the question (if there is another one) or a related key word

Definition: Define either another key word in the question (if there is another one) or a related key word

Real life example: Briefly explain a real life example. Two sentences maximum; you’ll keep link back to this later in the essay.

Part A2: Draw and explain a diagram

Draw the diagram which will best help you to answer the question. Draw it accurately and fully labelled (I.e. “Price of Ice Cream, Quantity of Ice Cream, D1, S1, E1.”) and with a title on top.

Tell us what the diagram shows, in general.

Explain a specific insight of the diagram (i.e. “As the diagram shows, the warmer weather results in a greater demand for ice cream. At Price P1, the quantity demanded increases from Q1 to Q2.”)

Develop that insight further. Use points on the diagram to explain WHY greater demand for ice cream is causing the price of ice cream to increase. (i.e. “The rightward shift of the demand curve means that for any given price, more is demanded. And this puts an upward pressure on price. Producers get a signal from the market that there is excess demand, so they see that they can increase their prices and they do.”) This is often where the high marks are hidden for Part A questions –making sense of the theory for The Reader. (I always say think of “The Reader” as a simple guy who doesn’t understand any economics yet. He doesn’t understand the theory yet and doesn’t know any of your key words. If you can make this stuff make sense to such a person in the time allowed you’re a rock star).

Link your example to the diagram.

Part B (27 minutes)

In part B you are always being asked to evaluate –even if the word evaluate isn’t used. We have the CLASPP model, which lists a variety of types of evaluation. However, it’s useful to try to carefully structure your answer to do this well. To do this, we’re borrowing an approach you’ll learn in Theory of Knowledge. We’re going to treat the Part B question as a knowledge issue.

If you aren’t sure about this approach, you can read this. In general we’re basically trying to argue both sides of a case (i.e. how it’s good for stakeholders and then how it’s bad for them) and do this in a few different ways (i.e. the theory says X, but the theory depends on ceteris paribus, which doesn’t normally hold true). In this way (basically debating with ourselves) we can explore the strengths and weaknesses of the theory and make an informed conclusion.

Intro (Definitions, diagrams and case link)

It is okay to write things like, “As the diagram in Part A shows, … or “Demand, as defined in Part A, …” However, sometimes you’ll need to include additional definitions and diagrams to help you explain your evaluative points in Part B. You’ll have to make a judgment call on this.

Definitions. Define words that require definition. At least one.

Diagram. Draw a diagram if you’re going to need it for your explanation. This will be required about 50% of the time. Basically, if there is a diagram that relates closely to the question and it’s not already in your Part A answer, you’ll have to include it here.

If you do include a diagram do it like this:

Explain the diagram. What does it show in general.

Explain a specific insight of the diagram (i.e. “As the diagram shows, the increase in the price of vaccines has little effect on the quantity demanded.”)

Develop that insight further using points on the diagram (i.e. “The large increase in price from P1 to P2, results in only a slight decrease in demand from Q1 to Q2″).

Link the example to diagram and the question. “Therefore a tax on vaccines will result in decreased demand and is therefore hurts some stakeholders.”

Mention a real life example that relates to the question. It might be the same one you used in Part A. And provide one detail about it (i.e. “China’s grain output rose 5.4 percent 2008.”)

Body 1 (Case link, claim, counterclaim and mini-conclusion)

Claim: Link your case back to the theory. “As the diagram above (or in Part A) shows, this increase in supply would likely have resulted in a decrease in the market clearing price.” So you are answering the question of the case using course theory and also using your example.

Counterclaim: Criticize the theory. You could say, “However, this depends on everything else remaining constant (ceteris paribus), which only occurs in theory.” Point out that it depends on ceteris paribus, which almost never occurs. Or point out that it’s purely theoretical; it cannot be tested. Or perhaps there is something else unrealistic about the theory. Challenging theory like this is tough, but there are a lot of marks for you if you can do it well.

Miniconclusion: Link back to the question (answer the question). “So we can see that, it is likely that, in most cases, and an increase in supply will be followed by a decrease in the equilibrium price.”

Body 2 (Claim, counterclaim and mini-conclusion)

Claim: Explain something else the theory shows. Look to CLASPP for various ways to do this. We’ve already used “assumptions” (which is a very powerful one you should always try to include), so I’ll use stakeholders for this example. “Given that the market clearing price of vaccines will fall, a key advantage of the policy is that more consumers will be willing and able to consume them.”

Counterclaim: Criticize this claim

Mini-conclusion: Link back to the question (answer the question).

Body 3 (Claim, counterclaim and mini-conclusion)

Claim. (i.e. advantages)

Counterclaim (i.e. disadvantages)

Mini-conclusion. Answer the question (i.e. “Therefore the advantages outweigh the disadvantages in most cases”)

Conclusion (Synthesis)

Draw together the insights of the different mini-conclusions you have made in your body paragraphs and come to a measured, qualified conclusion. Make sure you also answer the question here. It’s easy to , but also try to say something original. Show that you understand that policy decisions are complicated. For example, implementing theories has unintended consequences (i.e. hurting some stakeholders).


Thanks to Niamh Bowman for her great ideas and help with this structure. Niamh is an IB and MYP Economics and IB Theory of Knowledge teacher at the Overseas Family School in Singapore.

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Up:Economics Network > Writing for Economics

Essay writing

The idea of setting essays is to offer you the chance to make a longer, more complex argument. Nonetheless, in the model we recommend, the fundamentals remain the same. In each paragraph, a flow of main idea (thesis) - explanation / reasoning (justification) - evidence / example (support) is an excellent structure to use. If you read through academic writing, you will find this structure over and over. The same is true for professional writing. There are of course other structures, however this one always works and makes you sound concise and clear.

An essay has conventional sections that it is wise to follow. These are an introduction, main body and a conclusion. The 'LSE' essay structure can be described as 'say what you're going to say (intro), say it in detail (main body), say what you've said (conclusion)'. Although this may appear repetitive, it offers the reader great clarity. Also, if you think about the executive summary, background, analysis and conclusions / recommendations sections of a business report, you can see that a similar structure holds.

In your essay, try to follow this structure for your essay sections.


        Statement about the context of the question - explain why the question in important (either in the 'real' world or for the discipline of economics)

        Give you answer to the question

        Summarise your argument in support of this answer - this summary should match the order of your paragraphs

Main body

        Decide on the most logical order of your paragraphs - this might be importance, chronology or causation, but the basic flow should be simple and clear

Start each paragraph with a sentence that clearly addresses the question itself - this will be your thesis for the paragraph and if a reader only read these opening sentences, they should make sense one after the other and provide a summary of your argument

Follow the opening 'topic' sentence with your reasoning and evidence for why this opening statement is valid. Be specific, not general. The more detail you can bring in, the more expert you will sound and the more persuasive your argument will be

Conclusion Summarise your argument again - as you did in the intro (different words though!)

        Restate your answer to the essay question

        So what? - say what the significance of your answer is either in the 'real' world or to the discipline of economics


        List the books / articles you read while researching your answer

Below you'll find two essays written by students last year. Bearing the above in mind, decide which one makes the clearer argument and which, therefore, got the higher mark.

Essay 1

In the year 2000, there were auctions of spectrum rights for third generation mobile telephones in several European countries. These auctions generated very different amount of revenue in different countries. How can this be explained?

Auction theory as a very useful brunch of game theory is of the great interest of modern economists. Among other reasons of its popularity stands direct importance of its ideas to modern businesses and governments. Nowadays any business sector is more or less competitive, which requires all it's participants to be dynamic and creative. Modernization and expansion is a vital part of modern business world. Governments, as owners of resources that allow businesses to expand and modernize, are always ready to sell those resources as it will eventually help businesses and certainly bring revenues.

The best way for government to sell available resources is to declare an auction. That's where auction theory comes into play. Modern auction theory is a very powerful tool for designing auctions of very profitable kind. Proper auction design will rise maximum amount of money for the government and provide companies with resources they need. However actions that maximize profits for the government have a direct influence also on the life of the citizens, as Dixit puts it: "...because of significant contributions the budget, auctions affect important macroeconomic magnitudes, such as interest rates".

So, auctions held by government, and to be more specific properly designed actions directly influence the life of modern country. In this essay I would like to make a kind of short review of auctions of spectrum rights for third generation mobile phones held in Europe in year 2000. The peculiarity of these auctions lies in the fact that revenues that were generated by European governments are different as a result of differently designed actions they held. This fact allows as to trace features of the auctions that were successful and resulted in relatively high revenues for the government.

There were 6 European countries to held spectrum right auctions in 2000. They were: United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Switzerland. Let's start with United Kingdom as it was the first country to hold such kind of auctions.

Strategy that United Kingdom had chosen was selling 5 licenses during classical ascending auction. Auction resulted in huge revenues: 650 euros per capita. Firstly it should be said that auctions as any normal business activity should be competitive in order to be effective. UK spectrum auction was relatively competitive attracting 13 participants. There are several reasons why this action attracted so many participants. Firstly, UK was the first country in the world to hold spectrum rights auction. Participants were not completely aware of the usefulness of 3G cell phones, but were eager to get competitive advantage in the new generation mobile communication technology. Secondly, UK sold 5 licenses to the market with 4 major phone operators. This fact attracted new entrants, since at least one of the licenses can be potentially won by new entrants to the market. Both this facts generated highly competitive auction environment and limited possible collusions. Result of the auction was a huge success for UK government.

The next country to run spectrum rights auction in 2000 was Netherlands. This auction raised 170 euros per capita. Reason of such flop, comparing to the British result was lack of competition. When auction were run there were 5 major phone operators for 5 licenses to be sold. Few entrants decided to participate in the auction, since everybody was sure that 5 licenses will be distributed among market leaders. Another factor that made things even worse was the fact that that was an ascending auction. In this case with few participants there is a risk of collusion among market leaders. Netherlands would have generated much more money if they would some how encourage competition and change the action design in such a way that it would be possible for participants other than market leaders to place bids independently of each other to reduce collusion (sealed bid).

Italy generated 240 euros per capita and attracted 6 participants. Italy intentionally reduced amount of participants by imposing a requirements that participant of the auction must satisfy. Such situation combined with the fact that Italian auction was ascending could result in possible collusions among competitors. As a result wrong auction design resulted in low revenues.

Swiss auction was a real flop. They generated only 20 euros per capita. Here amount of participants was also artificially limited by allowing participants to join into the groups. And the price that government accepts was also reduced for some reason. Number of participants was sufficient to run profitable auction, but combination of officially permitted collusions and low reserve price resulted in absolutely insufficient revenues.

German and Austrian auctions were similar. Number of participants in both countries' auctions was low, which means that there were risks of collusion. Both countries sold licenses in blocks, allowing "number of winners be determined by bidders". Additionally Austrian government set a very low reserve price. Germany and Austria generated 615 and 100 euros per capita in revenue respectively. Germany designed auction in such a way that bids of two main market players were rationalized in a way that it resulted in high revenues.

Generally, the main difference in revenues generated from spectrum rights auctions can be explained by the difference in chosen auction design. Different auction design results in different amounts of money in revenues. Countries that tried to facilitate competitive bidding and limited the possibilities of collusion enjoyed high revenues.

Klemperer say that what really matters in auction design is "robustness against collusion and attractiveness to entry". Exactly the combination or lack of one of this factors resulted in the difference in the revenues generated by European countries. Any country that wants to increase revenues from auction must try to facilitate the competition among bidders by trying to make participation in auction as attractive as possible and eliminating any barriers for participation. There should be no cooperation between participants, as it will result in lower bids and as a consequence in low revenues. Countries should not choose auction design that facilitates collusion, as ascending auction in our case.

Of course there are several other reasons for difference in revenues, among them there is a fact that UK as a country that run the first spectrum rights auction in the world, might have enjoyed high revenues simply because participants were new to the licenses and had no idea of their true value. Overall economic situations in the counties as well as political might also result in differences in revenues. But the main reason for difference in profitability of the spectrum licenses auctions is difference in auction designs which were effective in some countries and not in the others.


A.K. Dixit and S. Skeath, Games of Strategy, 2nd edition, Norton, 2004

Paul Klemperer, Auctions: Theory and Practice Electronic version of book on

Essay 2

In the year 2000, there were auctions of spectrum rights for third generation mobile telephones in several European countries. These auctions generated very different amount of revenue in different countries. How can this be explained?

In the year 2000, European auctions of 3G mobile telecommunication licenses raised over 100 billion euros in government revenues. The countries that participated were United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. There was a big differential between revenues raised in each country with United Kingdom leading at 650 euros per capita and Switzerland coming in last at 20 euros per capita. The reasons for this big discrepancy in revenues is likely due to poor auction designs and the sequence in which the auctions took place.

When it comes to auction design, the two crucial components are attracting entry and preventing collusion. Ascending auctions encourage bidders to act collusively and deter weaker potential bidders as they know that the stronger bidder will always out bid him. On the other hand, (first-price) sealed-bid auctions act in the opposite direction from ascending auctions. It does not give bidders a chance to collude and encourages weaker bidders to participate. However, the disadvantage of using a sealed-bid auction is that it is more likely to lead to inefficient results than an ascending auction. The reason for this is that sometimes bidders with a lower value may beat opponents with a higher value. Hence, there is no perfect auction design and they must be customized to suit different environments and targets.

United Kingdom was the first to hold the auctions and they are a good example of how a well-planned auction design and good marketing strategies can lead to a favourable outcome. As there were five licenses and 4 incumbents, they had an ascending auction. To prevent collusion, each license could not be shared and each bidder was allowed no more than one license. Also, the fact that at least one license was available to new entrants lead to fierce competition from nine new entrants. To top it all off, UK had a solid marketing strategy which was planned over three years (1997 - 2000). All this helped contribute to UK raising 39 billion euros and being the most successful out of all the countries that took part in the 3G auctions.

Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland made the mistake of following UK and carrying out an ascending auction when a sealed-bid auction would have served them better. This resulted in revenues less than that achieved by UK.

In the case of Netherlands, they had five licenses and five incumbents. This deterred new entrants as well as facilitated collusion. For example, Deutsche Telekom colluded with local incumbents to bid for a 3G license. A sealed-bid would have worked better as this would have discouraged joint bidding, raise higher revenues as well as give new entrants a glimmer of hope.

Italy had their auction next but failed to learn from Netherlands and UK. Their auction design was not robust and failed to adapt to the environment in Italy. They adopted the UK design but had the additional rule that if bidders did not exceed licenses, the number of licenses would be reduced. They did not realize that having one more bidder than license does not assure that the outcome will be competitive. Also, Italy had failed to anticipate that firms would react differently to those in Netherlands and UK as they now had more information. Hence, weaker bidders were discouraged by previous auctions and did not bother to participate and since the participation rate was low, it made it easier for the strong bidders to collude. A bad auction design that was not tailored to the Italian environment and a low reserve price resulted in Italy only earning less than 25 billion euros.

Switzerland was the most unsuccessful amongst all the countries that held the auctions. It raised only 20 euros per capita in its ascending auction and this can be attributed to an unfeasible auction design, badly formulated rules and an absurdly low reserve price. Since the beginning, weaker bidders were deterred by the auction form. They felt that they did not stand a chance against the strong bidders and hence did not bother participating. This resulted in little competition. Furthermore, The Swiss government committed auction suicide when they permitted last-minute joint-bidding! This resulted in nine bidders colluding to become just four. The last mistake that the Swiss government made was to set a reserve price that was way too low. Since there were four licenses and four bidders, bidders ended up paying only the reserve price.

Germany and Austria chose a more complicated auction design.

Germany's auction design was an ascending auction of twelve blocks of spectrum from which bidders could create four three-block licenses or six two-block licenses. Germany's auction design was very susceptible to collusion and deterring new entrants but they were lucky and managed to earn high revenues.

Austria, on the other hand, adopted Germany's auction design but was not so lucky and only earned 100 euros per capita. The reason for this was that there were 6 bidders competing for 12 blocks of spectrum and a very low reserve price (one-eight of the reserve price in Germany). So instead of trying to get three blocks of spectrum, the bidders divided the 12 blocks of spectrum equally and paid the reserve price. This reason lead to Austria earning less per capita revenue than UK and Germany.

The other factor that affected the amount of revenue earned by each country was the sequence in which the auctions took place. Looking at the results of the 3G auctions held in 2000, it can be seen that the most successful auctions were the first of their type (United Kingdom and Germany). The reason for this is that between auctions, bidders learnt from previous auctions, came up with new strategies and learnt more about their rivals. However, the auction designs remained almost the same and were unable to keep up with the new ideas the bidders had come up with. This resulted in the later auctions not being as successful as the first.

In conclusion, the reason for the different revenues earned amongst the countries that took part in the 3G auctions is due to the auction designs and the sequence in which they took place. Revenues depend on how well the auction design is able to attract entry and prevent collusion. Also, it has to be able to adapt to new environments. For example, a good auction design takes into account the information bidders have and the knowledge they have gained from previous auctions. A sensible reserve price is of high importance as well and should not be overlooked like in the case of Switzerland and Germany. Lastly, auction design is not "one size fits all" and the failure of the government to design an auction that suited the country's environment lead to different revenues being earned.


A.K. Dixit and S.Skeath, Games of Strategy, 2nd edition, Norton, 2004

Professor Kenneth Binmore, "Economic Theory Sometimes Works"